Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Rue The Day - I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met)

Here's a rather December picture.  It's a plant of rue, ruta graveolens, not the tighter,  brighter kind called Jackman's Blue - it's the rarely seen species, glimmering away in a wilder part of the Bagatelle gardens, Paris.

How useful is rue then? We used to think it belonged in herb gardens - those unsuccessful institutions for meek, ramshackle, tasty-leaved plants.  Herbs can be roots, seeds, stems.  Really they're just very strongly flavoured vegetables, of which you only want a little bit.  Or, to put it another way, they're wetter, greener, spices. In our innocence we used to try to corral small tasty leaves of this type, plus a few unlikely roots and selected seed heads, in old cartwheels, or divided and segmented  prisons, out of which the mint, lovage and lemon balm would burst, frightened by the horseradish.

I love the way I sound in that last paragraph, so worldly-wise, like a real gardening sophisticate, who never made an error or followed the crowd down a foolish cul-de-sac. Nonsense really.  Best course to take is learn the lesson and be a bit rueful about it.

Here's that sort of herb garden.   It carries less of the herby baggage now, leaning more towards its own topiarised divisions; indeed, it's heavy sculpture now, frilled with wispy fluff. From York Gate in Yorkshire,UK. Significant changes have been made, but no rue is evident.

Rue may be an interesting and useful emotional response, leavening regret or disappointment but it's not a very useable herb.  I cannot imagine wishing to eat it; a sandwich of rue would sear my mouth with bitterness.

For years however I have used rue in my English gardens as a strong rounded clump of glaucous blue.  There are three little ones in the picture above, in heavy soil and dry shade. Though it will look good in a gentle climate right through until the spring, it's particularly telling in August, exactly when one is full of rueful reflections about gardening, feeling the game is not worth the candle and wondering where it all went wrong. Excitement is at a low ebb, but if in early spring you managed to trim your rue down to a nearly cabbagey stump your reward is here, tight blue filigree in informal globes, brightening dry shade and lifting small maroon, magenta or pale sad pink flowers like allium senescens.

Not one to put with lush prairie planting and big flowers, rue seems best to me against low, fairly delicate planting.  So-called alpines (another elastic category) that are past their own moments of bright flower can work well. It's slightly artificial colour can also stand well in town gardens where evergreens and architecture predominate. In old-fashioned non-naturalistic planting in other words, so uninteresting and passe', now that we're all straining to make our gardens look as though they just happen to be be beautiful and full of flowers, not as though we've spent forever trying to achieve that effect.  Smart hedges and topiary of yew, box or hornbeam are fine of course.  They are for the straight-lined containment and shaping of the abounding naturalness.  I will remind you at this point that I'm not at all bitter, I'm rueful.

Here are two relatively recent kinds of herb gardens, neither of them claiming to be a herb garden as such.  The first could easily have rue in it, but doesn't.  It's part of Beth Chatto's exquisite informal Mediterranean dry river bed planting, perfect for many of our tastiest herbs.  This garden is underpinned  by the truths of naturalistic planting but the grouping and placing is that of the conscious gardener making pictures.   I love it, but it's not very Now.

The second one, below, from Morville Hall, on the other hand, is very current.  It looks like a runaway herby potager or cutting garden.  Soft and misty, haphazard, pretty by accident -it looks "natural" and adorable.  Note the sweet peas: is there a plant that requires more human attention?   Rue might fit in, especially if running to flower or seed.

But rue won't go everywhere, blue filigree foliage makes it  altogether a rather demanding little madame or possibly monsieur. So there's the thing - you have to keep a tight check on your rue - it's not a plant or a sentiment of which very frequent or repeated use can be made. Here and there however, at well-chosen moments it can strike just the right note, refreshing the regrets of late summer or a relationship that ended untimely and against your will.

And so we turn to the song - I Don't Believe You  (She Acts Like We Have Never Met).   It's a song from the early album Another Side of Bob Dylan.  The theme is of innocence versus artifice, apparent straightforwardness versus incontrovertible game-playing - it's more or less there in the title.

I'm circling round a plant-based connection to the singer and his story.  He could be bitter, coldly ignored by the female conquest of the night before, but he's not - he prefers to finesse disappointment by learning something, ruefully.  He learns that it is easy enough to deal with rejecting someone else- all you have to do is act like you have never met, you don't have to explain or argue. As a person on the receiving end of such treatment he is full of youthful bravado, wondering what he did wrong. As a person looking for ways to manage life, people, and their many demands he decides, exchanging disappointment for amusement, that this is a useful idea, and you can use it with anyone you like.    It's a shift from one world to another, from innocence to cynicism, the brandishing of a little rue leading to the acquisition of a useful skill.

The song has an interesting modernist feel. The music is dissonant, even rudimentary.  He uses half-speech, plunging you into the middle of a conversation. As the listener you fill in your own half as the song goes on. He sounds like a friend trying not to spill his guts but needing to confide and think through his rejection, so there's a feeling of intimacy.  He uses every trick in the book to distance himself from any possible sorrow, only the harmonica betrays him.  And that too convinces us of how hard he is working to cover up his true feelings, and therefore of the depth of those feelings.  Or is that too Machiavellian an interpretation?  Maybe the laughter is genuinely because he sang the verses in the wrong order, not rueful about being ignored at all.

He laughs anyway, he remembers how her skirt swung, how watery and wet her mouth was.  Who would ever imagine you could say that, it sounds so naive, so accurately and almost childishly visceral.  But there's more to it than that, we all know what he really means.  Anyway it serves to prove that she's lying about something, even though she doesn't want any more of him now.  Its another very crafted, clever song, rhetoric in action.  I completely believe him, but the whole thing's a set-up, like the modern naturalistic garden.
In my youth it dawned on gardeners that plants, like people, should aim to have something interesting to offer even when the raging glory of reproduction is past.  It's a rather dated realisation about how to plant a garden now, one that can result in a rash of tawdry and attention seeking leaf-forms.

Still, a little intelligent restraint ought to be possible, as in all things.  See the picture below, again from Beth Chatto, gentle contrasts of shape and colour, all clearly guided by a gardener’s hand.

Let me remind you of what we loved - plants that filled our gardens, covering every inch of soil, end to end and depth over depth.  One thing would arrive as another finished, bulbs pierced through; foliage, where possible evergreen, made complementary contrast at every level.  Beds faced a certain way.  Ornamental gardening was like flower-arrangement on the ground.  The plants used were expected to offer maximum bang for minimal buck - especially in terms of space. Thence hebes, hostas, acers, photinias, euonymus.  Characterful leaves of many colours, impact of shape, structure and hue.

The effects die hard.  New coloured-leaved forms of nearly every sort of plant, preferably shorter, tighter and easier, are still sought and introduced.  On the one hand, they're terribly tempting, so neat and bright: on the other, they look synthetic and clumpy, the dead hand of a forgotten fancy.

I’m sorry to use this next picture, but not sorry enough to stop myself.  The garden was one I simply passed, not open to the public, not asking for my opinion, but it illustrates my point as well as anything could.  An explosion has occurred in a garden centre.  Or an enthusiastic innocent has simply fallen for everything, when coolness and hauteur might would have worked better.


So now I hope you can see how these things are true for both gardener and lover.  Hip and distant, I’m sad to say, scores higher than frank and keen.  Naturalistic is both simpler and more difficult in gardens.  And the song too turns everything on its head, several times over.  We end up wondering exactly where artifice lies.

Back to the plants.  Can we retrieve something from those out-dated ideas?  I still cling to some of what I learnt, to what made so much sense - I still like plants that offer interesting shapes, stems and leaves, plants that cover the ground but are more than formless matt mid-green. I do not like to place all my eggs in the basket set only for flowers. Especially in darker Kent, where we're used to a bit of murk. Light levels can postpone and limit summer flowering but winters are often warmish and dankish, making a mess of dying foliage and seed-heads.

I have tried experimenting with freer, taller, gently coloured plants, both shrubs and perennials, that can offer that extra bonus of softly coloured leaves over a longer period.  Here I’ve used a taller glaucous blue plant, thalictrum flavum sbsp glaucum or, as it also seems to be known, thalictrum speciosissimum, or Illuminator.  It’s also called Dusty or Yellow meadow-rue and that is in fact what it is like, a huge open rue, blue-leaved and fluffy-flowered.

Alongside it is a tiny-crimson-flowered, late-blooming fuschia with ashy pink leaves, (fuschia magellanica versicolor), and a yellowish-leaved abelia (abelia grandiflora Francis Mason) with eventual pale pink flowers.  The thalictrum can be cut to the ground after it turns messy in July and will speedily refurnish itself.  The abelia is nearly evergreen with me, just remove old wood from the base when it gets congested.  The fuschia needs cutting to the ground in spring and any plain green shoots should be removed from the base as it restarts.  Plant it all once.  Weeds and slugs barely get a chance.  Flowers from June to October, even November, no resowing, or dividing.  But maybe it’s just a mess and a bore. 
It is at the boundaries of our desire for colour, order and complexity, against our love of looseness, naturalness and wildness, that we fight our gardening battles.  Quick, plant some grasses -  relieve the heaviness and stage-management of the old style of planting. Drag the casualties, shrubs and bright evergreens off the field.  No-one seems to want or even comprehend low ground-cover.  I'm left  puzzled and lost sometimes, longing to use my old weapons.

As the song reminds me though,you need to be able to recognise a little artifice and be able to use it yourself. Preferably with a light touch. No point acting like you've never met when a simple cool acknowledgement will do.  No point pretending that flowering is endless and gardening unnecessary.  Or that what seemed good once is the same now.   A little rueful discrimination might help as the tide turns. We’ll still not get it quite right, let’s hope we get it wrong differently.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Brutal Elegance - Every Grain of Sand

I don't really mean the song is brutal, far from it.  But death and evolution are infinitely brutal and infinitely elegant, endlessly turning and resolving.  The individual seems to be everything and the universe nothing.  Precisely and equally, the exact opposite is also true.

A dear friend and I discuss, and attempt to apply, the William Morris test when deciding what to chuck out of our houses and what to keep.  Only the truly beautiful or the truly useful.  Everything else must go.  But a reasonably loving observation of nature suggests  something further, namely that true utility eventually tends to some sort of wild and strange beauty.The Komodo dragon may give us pause in the consideration of this theory but I'll stick with it. A perfect equilibrium and fitness to the task is all; from efficiency arises beauty and the unfit falls away. 

The persimmon or diospyrum kaki.  A remarkable fit with human needs in a continental climate - no care other than planting required, produces delicious fruits late in autumn, ready for the dark days of winter.  How did  I ever deserve such a lovely thing?

sit here today with six scaffolders - presumably similar to scaffolders all over the world, loud, rambunctious, determined, not beautiful yet, utilitarian and proud of it.  They're a bit upset however.  We have an enormous hornets nest under the roof  in the pigsty/stall/hutch section of our Italian house and they are worried that taking down the scaffolding will cause some sort of war for survival between man and hornet - the latter on their home territory, the former keen to get on and off the job with no problems.  One of the scaffolders, perhaps with a slightly more philosophical streak, completely useless in his chosen profession, has pointed out the magnificence of the hornet construction and admires the fact that it was created without obvious scaffolding of any kind.  I suppose that's not quite true though;  in some ways a hornets nest is probably nothing but internal, integrated scaffolding.

Anyway we've phoned the firemen, who seem only slightly interested, to discuss them coming to remove the nest.  I don't know, I'd hoped that as the autumn advances, the nest could be knocked down after the hornets left it to do whatever it is that they do.  I understand smoke could be involved.  As I cook a bit of fish for my lunch, I'd rather not be responsible for the death of thousands of hard-working hornets, their loves, their hopes, their belief in a future for their children.

I see the chief scaffolders are not interested in discussion with me, the pathetic householder.  They've had a pee here and there, so something important has been achieved. They're rushing about now, swearing about the inconvenience of the location - the wheels of their trucks having ground out pits of slippery mud on what passes for an access point.  I await my friendly, authoritative chief builder, Ottavio, with concern.  I know there have been previous discussions about the access issues. Blame has been cast, at driving abilities, topography, weather.  But in the end there's little to be done but find a solution, abandonment of the job being the only other alternative.

Utility, on its journey to eventual beauty, if we are to believe my initial assertion, is all about fitting in with the reality of how things are.  Stuff works, or it doesn't.  Time moves on and sorts it all out.  What succeeds dies, what fails dies out.   Simple.  Painful.  You may have what you want in the face of that.  We have filled the world with abandoned workings, we will fill it more, all will be abandoned, knocked down.  A planet of toxic rubble will breathe deep and start again.

My tasks today are to view, with mixed horror and enthusiasm, the arrival of the donkeys which are going to clear our land.  Electric fencing and anxiety are all in place.   Then to review matters with Ottavio, the builder.  To decide with the plasterers on whether to leave exposed the iron ribs that hold the thin curved ceiling vaults in place, or whether to plaster them over, thus creating a wavy but uniform effect. 

Exposed, the ribs would look a bit stripy.  You would see the nature of the construction - would this be useful?  I'm not sure it would be beautiful.    Neither Darwin nor Morris can help me here.  No-one is prepared to admit that any other consequences follow, in time, labour, complexity or maintenance.  I find this hard to believe but have to adapt to circumstances.  Ottavio is a sphinx on the subject. OK, let's have them concealed under the plaster.


Oh let's get back to plants - so much easier, and even if they die because of bad planning or lack of knowledge - at least no suffering is involved.  I'm always astonished to discover that some people find this hard to accept and go in for the rescue of plants they see as abandoned or neglected.   This way lies madness I'm afraid, although I suppose the essential sweet naturedness of human anthropomorphism is also exposed.

I said no suffering was involved in the death of plants. Someone will tell me that there is evidence that plants produce stress hormones, screaming away beyond our hearing.  So maybe we have to devise a world where plants must be killed humanely - what could that look like? I feel deeply, self-centredly bored at the idea. 

Dead plants create every form of life - there's no question of managing without them, though those who live in cities in the desert may sometimes wonder about that.

Death is life.  We're all in this together.  Wanton cruelty  confuses us, for we know that death is supremely utilitarian and therefore must be beautiful.  But cruelty is a final sort of ugliness and cannot tend to beauty.  The equations seem unlikely to work, but I believe they do.  I just believe it.
I see one of the scaffolders is sitting down to eat his lunch on a bank where I may have planted some pieces of this or that, anxious to learn what will live through the winter. Now I will gain knowledge about another aspect of my planting's resilience, I only have to run  out later and see what is or was there.  

Oh this is rather more exciting than I'm sure about.  Apparently one of the scaffolders gave the hornets nest a hit with what must have been a very long pole.
He did this deliberately, but completely insanely.   The others  carried on with their work, less obviously bothered about the hornets since they were told to pull themselves together by their head honchos.  So we rush, from one extreme to another.

Since the terrible event the hornets are just clambering about over the nest, and flying back and forth.  It's like a bomb's gone off for them I suppose. But rescue and recuperation is clearly their primary purpose, not retaliation.  Good, wise hornets, we might think, but they wouldn't do better if they'd stung us all into toxic shock, gaining only a day and all-out war against all their kind in the entire area.
The odds are, as usual, stacked, immensely stacked, apparently in our favour.  Eventually they will climb so high that they collapse on top of us.  We will go to hell in our own way, taking down everything we can.
Here's Dylan with a song I cannot hope to do justice to, one whose beauty and truth  fills me with tears I need not shed because of the control and the cleverness.   I choose, with nothing but pleasure, the version from the album Shot of Love.  Listen to it, it's the beating heart of a hymn to an absent but not dead watchmaker.  Whether that watchmaker can see what he's doing or not is somehow not the issue here.  The singer expresses a dearly won but honest doubt against the forces of belief and manages to remain, with a brilliance of neutrality for which he is rarely lauded, a little outside the absolute finalities in the idea of intelligent design, or not, in the universe.  Nothing is resolved, we hang, we balance.
The song is depth-charged with ancient literary voices.   The plaintive Alice in Wonderland opening, Blake, Bunyan, Dante, Epicurus, the Bible and Lucretius, ringing through the mind. Epicurus I only know through Lucretius, but I know they both believed that human fear of death is the worst and saddest sin.  They hold the line against the panicked excesses of human superstition: I'm with them, hunting the calm of acceptance. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is a great read, all about the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius, though I'm sorry to sound like a person with a showy and extensive reading list, when I can barely get through a newspaper.

The story of the song is a moment of reckoning in the difficult stony passage through life, where past mistakes and failures are rejected in recognition that one can only move forward, exercising the best one can of free will and accepting the inevitability of death. I've put that portentously and turgidly; the opposite of this delicate stepping through the song, listening and seeing as we pass, thoughts embodied in the images, washed by the waves of the sea.

The donkeys have arrived, only eight or nine, one pretty close to unacceptably male. They're a happy little band, eating with gusto.  Jessica is keeping an eye on them, stick in hand, until the fence is turned on.  Donkeys, hornets, try a stick.

The day is nearly over - it's been something, perhaps not quite fun.  My clothes are full of burrs from the burdocks and I've parked a few plants brought from England.  Proper planting will follow building.  Anna, who lived in this house many years ago and now lives at the top of the hill, has popped down for a chat and told me of the wonders of tagetes and oleanders.  My sanguisorbas and thalictrums are unlikely to impress, or even register. But the pale mauve allium pulchellum carinatum, a late flowering bulb like a larger, slenderer, more disorganised chive, with the same tendency to seed about, brightened her eyes.

My motley collection of agaves and aeoniums interested and enthused her. They're destined to winter, imprisoned like criminals, in the cantina, neither beautiful nor useful to me, but so far surviving against the odds.  In my mood of evolutionary austerity against the endless wastes of time evoked by the song, they represent nothing more than the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear; great question-marks of fitness and responsibility hang over their meekly vegetable, spiky heads.

I listen once more to this miraculous song, so beautiful it must be useful, my heart lifts again.  The harmonica breaks, where Pan slips into the scene, are full of the agonising sweetness of life.  I'm right with the singer, here on this earth, where sparrows must fall. For me, no master counts them as they fall.  Even so, while we live, everything counts, just everything. Despite the stony path, and our own errors and failures, we're already in Wonderland.

Friday, 24 August 2012

It's All So Puzzling - Tangled Up In Blue

I begin thinking about gardening in Italy, where nature holds a slightly different position in the human cultural universe.  It's one I can hardly understand, though I know roughly what it might be.  Something to do with those distant visions of hills and castles behind pellucid madonnas, something to do with the far beyond.  There's exercise, there's leisure, there's outdoor art and history.  And there's food of course.  But digging, weeding, planting?  Only the odd do much of that for fun. 

On the whole, and I know I'm generalising past all reason, the Italian heart beats fastest in the city, slowing to bafflement in the country, unless, of course, some delicious morsel or exercise are involved.  Outdoor art, and architecture and beauty created by the human hand are appreciated and comprehended.  Nature is as nature does, preferably at some distance.  I feel little of the acceptance and understanding that the enthusiastic gardener  has in Britain.  Indeed I stand  accused of being a "romantic Englishwoman".  Such a thing never crossed my mind - obviously gardening and Italy are both lovely things, why not put them together and double your pleasure?

And this little sycamore tree in a pot in Milan says so much, to me at least - about a sort of horticultural innocence.  I sound a bit patronising - but I'm not, not at all.  It's a different way of seeing, a challenge, a thrill, a lament for what I thought I knew.

So let's get started.  My previous comfortable relationship with gardening  (like a long marriage in its well-worn predictability) is now completely overturned.   This version is strange and incomprehensible with a new set of rules, odd weather, different patterns of growth, different use of materials.  And no recogniseable meaning as an activity. Plus there's almost no conception of "natural" or "wild" gardening - which is understood as not gardening, not counting, barely visible.

As we know, it's hotter in summer and colder in winter.  The rain might be harder and the sun harsher.  I am used to not knowing quite how to manage periods of drought in the gardens I work in, in Kent.  A little selective watering and a certain amount of blind eye turning seems to get us all through.  Will that work in Piemonte?  No one seems to think so.

This strange cream-coloured soil is heavy but crumbly, rock hard when dry, but when piled into heaps collapses like sand.  I see no trace of humus in it, no worm has been visible in the areas I have prodded around in.  This is a mystery I planned to alleviate with compost, but my usual ploys have so far resulted in a sort of hot dessication rather than the gentle humetic collapse that I'm used to.

I have researched what I can, read a lot, chatted a lot, walked about and tried to get a grip.  I've spent a long time with a book which promised to explain everything, including the natural flora and vegetation, but which seems to skirt true clarity, confusing even as it illuminates.   Such a nuisance that there aren't hard and fast lines of demarcation; the variables are thoroughly varied.  My bit of Mondovi' appears to be on the edge of everything, transitioning wildly between geologies, geographies, heights and vegetation ranges.  People explain one thing and immediately contradict it with another.  This is going to take me years and I see there are no short-cuts.

I'm more or less prepared to start thinking I'm in zone 6, and humid continental, climactically.  Or at least I was until I noted agapanthus in a neighbours garden; apparently in its third year. Which preconception shall I chuck out - how harsh the climate really is, or how tough the agapanthus?  Another slightly firmish bit of terrain, on which I thought  I was able safely to perch, and from which I thought I would build a whole structure of understanding, crumples under my feet.  Even worse - I'm not even sure which bit of the understructure has gone - it's probably a whole moving stream under the hillside, like our recently-discovered well, 14 metres down, pumping away downhill.

Here's another plant set to tangle with my mind.  It's ceratostigma plumbaginoides, a reliable late flowerer in Kent, creeping slowly and expansively in warmish better-drained soil.  What on earth is it doing in Mondovi', growing away, almost as if it thought it was in the right place?

Oh well, I bite my lip and take it all back.  Turns out that ceratostigma plumbaginoides is hardy to Zone 5 even 4.  I was wrong.  That's what happens when you start a new life; sometimes things fall into place as well as out of it.

And another thing - how time lengthens when you live in two places, not completely settled in either, battling slightly in both.  This summer seems to have been here for ever.  Perhaps I've found the secret to lengthening life. Not just a holiday, a whole second confusing tangled life, a bewilderment of strands in any colour.

Naturally enough, I'm trying to find things I can recognise and feel some confidence in, hoping to build up from those.  I cannot help but search for something familiar, something that makes sense to me.  It's all a matter of finding a sort of string and pulling, to see where it leads, what it's attached to, how much of a wad of other string is tied to it.

Here's my first string -  I've devised a plan for near the house.  It's supposed to resolve the levels into easier access, so you can walk more comfortably and perhaps feel tempted out into the sloping "meadows".

This photograph was taken from the opposite point of view to the one of the heap of soil above.  Note the car in both and you'll know what I mean.  May I bore you with topography?  There is a drop of about 3 metres between one end of the house and the other, then the land continues to fall, more sharply, in a rough semicircle all round the bottom half of the house.   It drops about 40 metres (a lot - very steep in some places, just slopey in others) down to the muddy trickle in the valley below the house.  The distant house and the town, which look fairly close in the first picture are actually on the opposite hillside and further than you might think.

My sketched plan begins with some rather fierce terracing near the house, with steps. Three levels to help you move down and out.  My first and only thought so far, not very clever but I hope efficient and at least capable of a bit of domestic planting. 

I'm sorry to admit that today's song -  Tangled Up In Blue from the album Blood On The Tracks has always perversely presented my mind's eye with an unimaginative, rather kitsch image - a kitten struggling about with a ball of wool.  I feel a bit like that sadly cliched animal, every move a new capture in confusion.  My plan is supposed to help me orientate myself in this garden, both physically and as a way to start gardening.  Level ground is where I want to stand; space and distance are supposed to fall into place around it; a nice piece of knitting, or perhaps a piece of tapestry ought to emerge from all that tangled wool.

The Picassoesque protagonist of the song is no kitten; blue is his background, but he's a fisherman, a lumberjack, in a car, walking in the rain,  he's himself and someone else at the same time, close up in different places.  He talks of a woman, or many women.  The side of her face is turned as she studies the lines of his.  She's standing at the back and walking away, speaking over his shoulder, bending at his feet, lighting a pipe from the stove, the laces of his shoes in close focus. I'm summarising the scattering of time, place and experience expressed so perfectly in the song.

Life happens, he comes and goes, apparently affecting little, just reacting.  You could say the whole song is an attempt to get a grip; to hold it and manage it by being fully inside his past and present, fully aware, ready to contain and master experience.  Or at least turn it into a new form of creation. 

detail from The Couple - Pablo Picasso

Here's a nice Italian link - in a striking image, the protagonist of the song sings of "An Italian poet from the thirteenth century" whose words ring true, pouring from every page, glowing like burning coal.  Those words, whether from Dante or Petrarch, are about a new life or a new style - a new art.  They're also about either Laura or Beatrice, unapproachable women, to be adored from afar. Irrelevant women really, muses, madonnas, not central but peripheral.  My beautiful example in the very first picture of this piece is a detail from Leonardo Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci.  Exquisite but a little sulky, and who can blame her.

The singer's moving on, bewildered but involved in each new phase of life he enters.  None answer every need, none are easy.  As he picks important strands from his past he wonders if he can retrieve the woman, or one of the women, and infiltrate her into his present but seems to conclude that he prefers to abandon the muddled trap.

I'm absolutely in tune with the distorted narrative of the song, though I'm not at the deeper level of desperate loss which is also there, in some listenings.  Things that were clear to me suddenly look out of shape and illusory.  But I'm on the move, ready to find out, feeling quite alive and alert despite the confusion. When you're not absolutely sure of your ground, when flux and distortion throw certainty into question - that ought to be a good time.  And finding a way out of it, to something less confused, that's even better.  Change-management - that's what it's all about, though such language chokes me.

Here's a detail of a picture of Saint Helena by Cima da Conegliano.  Doesn't it suggest that gardens are inappropriate?  What am I to do, abandon my whole purpose?

As I wander around, thinking of what to do on this piece of land, bee-eaters flock about, chatting liquidly to each other.  Never seen those before and they're exquisitely turned out in shades of bluey-green and amber.  It's a comfort to be distracted.

I cannot imagine that some parts of my own small compost heap of experience won't be useful. It has taken me many years to accumulate the things I know about gardening and  I insist on a a bit of recycling and recuperation. Here comes a new experience - I've arranged for twenty donkeys to graze the land and tidy it up.  Who knows what that will be like?  The beginning of a whole new tangle I should think.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Natural Good Taste - Tomorrow Is A Long Time

So, is this too much? Is it too showy, too in your face?  Shall I take something off - the gold dog collar say, or should I just add a fascinator?

Taste is a slippery devil at the best of times, I wouldn't want you to think I had none, or the wrong sort, or was altogether too self-conscious about it.  So I'll just throw this denim jacket over the top, then people won't think I was trying too hard.

It's easy to undershoot or overshoot the cursed requirement to express yourself in everything you choose and do.  There are those who think that the very worst error of taste is to worry about what others might think of what you choose.  They may be right, although such an intervention is unhelpful when choices have to be made and money spent.  Still, nothing could be more boring than someone else's uncertain but stubborn jittering over everyday choices.  I know it, and, as I furnish and help arrange the building of two houses, I confess it.

Taste is not divided into good and bad for nothing.  On some level, it's a moral universe involving ignorance, extravagance, and folly.  Or imagination, intelligence and sensitivity.  Some people tell me plastic surgery is fine if it's very well done by someone expensive and tasteful.  Is it?  Or are some choices only damnable, however fine their execution? 

My choices have been made - all I have to do is worry now, will it look cheap and nasty?  Have I cut the wrong corners?  I don't imagine I've been too ostentatious - I haven't really got the imagination to do that.  The gardens are untouched as yet, only their principles clear.  The Italian one will be, without surprising anyone, meadowy, "natural", curvy like the hills.  The English one is very small.  It will be full of sweet scented winter flowerers and delicate evergreens; more formal, slightly stuffed.  I love a bit of glittery green bulk on a cold winter's day. 

Of course, good taste seems a mealy-mouthed and pettifogging sort of praise to wish to earn, when we gardeners long only to create beauty, serenity and interest.  But never under-estimate it, nowadays good taste includes the flourish of originality.  You can't get away with just not offending - there has to be something more interesting than that.  But perhaps good taste is best not aimed at consciously, or you'll end up strangled. 

I'm not trying to be too categorical with my pictures.  They're food for thought in matters of taste.  The above was an Australian design for Chelsea, quite a few years ago.  I'll be honest, it upset me, but perhaps there is a place where it would pass muster - a shopping centre maybe.

Now what about these ducklings?  Are they funny and clever?  Or ugly and silly?  Are they bad taste?  I cannot ask if they are good taste, it wouldn't make sense.  And that tells us something else about good taste. It's a sort of base-line requirement; it can be trumped by glamour, or art or child-pleasing whimsy, as in this case, from the garden at Lake Konstanz.  Perhaps we only need think about it at all in relation to ordinary, necessary things, like paving or furniture.

But we've all seen how a charming, bright new idea in garden decoration can plummet to ubiquitous cliche, sometimes within a season.  And there it is, floundering around in the bad taste pool.  I'm sure you know the sort of thing I mean; how tasteless it would be to name culprits.  Money has been shelled out, but cachet is lost.  See, that's what I'm afraid of, wrong spending.  With so much else so worrying, and when others have none to waste, it's the poorest possible taste to even mention it.

This is my old garden.  The wiggles are perhaps in poor taste in a small garden, pretending to an untrue naturalism.  It was a compromise forced by tasteless greed for plants and a diminishing wedge-shaped garden.  The width of the steps was however always a comfort to me - now it's my mantra, always make a small number of steps wide.  A moment of Good Taste has gripped me by the throat.  I'll have to find more than that to cling to in my Italian garden viz.

The song of the day is Tomorrow Is A Long Time.  From a maudlin emotional cliche' of the pop-fodder of the time, lost or departed love, the very young Dylan fashioned a faultless description of the self in sorrow.  It was never released on a regular album and is to be found on a Greatest Hits compilation - Volume II, sometime after its creation.   I think it's relatively well-known, but hope that you will track it down and listen if it is new to you.

For this song is about an ordinary, necessary thing -  the equivalent of the paving or furniture of a life.  Getting through a bad time, when you're disappointed and unsure.  Love has failed, you're miserably low and sad.   And it's an emotion cheapened in song by a million fresh-faced crooners.  What can exploring such emotions have to do with exhibiting perfect taste?  Listen again and find out.

Partly, it's because the protagonist is thinking.  He observes his own disorder, even as he sings it, and anatomises it.  We recognise the loss of identity and meaning, even of our very own selves, when grief overwhelms us and the universe is cancelled.  The charm of making the effort to tell us, properly, how it feels, when it's so very hard to connect; perhaps that's where we feel the element of taste.  The song is made of intelligence and care - honest and worthy materials.

Talking of materials and honesty - too much cut stone, carried too far, makes me inexplicably anxious. I know there's a lot of stone in the world.  Perhaps it's a vision of children in quarries, or of endless pressure-washing.  Or of ships struggling across the sea, full of stone. I see my arguments may not be well-founded.

I've always liked concrete for its democracy, if not for its carbon emissions. The Rothschilds at the Jardin Ephrussi obviously felt the same, we have so much in common.  Here it's pretending to be something else - I'm not sure what.  Perhaps that's why it nearly gets away with it; the pretence doesn't begin to work.

And this next one is concrete, and even corrugated iron, made rather lovely in my view.  Like the song, care and honesty, intelligently used.  Sometimes it means more to work with what you have.  And that's really more natural for me, bodging about with what I've already got, gathering some bits and pieces discarded in other gardens and wearing pre-loved clothes.  But I didn't make this.  Strangely it was in an otherwise entirely indifferent hotel garden.  And it was like someone speaking to me.

There's another element to the good taste of the song.  Unmanaged emotion is uninteresting on the whole, even if you can find a good tune to lean it on.  In this song the singer uses every tool -  his clear but varied voice, his increasingly strong and controlled words and a sweet and simple melody - to master and communicate his feelings.  In doing so, he magically re-sizes them, changes their proportions, not to diminish them, but to contain them.  I find that moving - you can hear growth happening, even though there is nothing but uncertainty ahead. 

Natural growth in my garden in Italy in July - a tiny wild erigeron and tatty willow. Totally untouched. Natural good taste in white and silver.  Just wait till I mess it up

Of course proportionality matters, nearly more than anything else, in all matters of judgement and taste.  But there's even more to the song.

Listen again to the the sensuality of his love's remembered pounding heart as she lay next to him, his longing and sleeplessness, the artless, clever confusion of trails and times and verbs and nouns in the first few lines.  Three verses: an endless highway, echoing footsteps and a silver, singing river, plus, far off, in the distance,  the structure and echoes of poetry you already know and half forget.  Natural, universal feelings;  like something found, not made.  Unerring, unconscious, good taste.  And in one so young!

I can't deny that there's something in the song that appeals to the mother in me - that innocence, that pain.  But we'll put that aside and stick with the good taste, no foot out of place across this quagmire of adolescent emotion.

Proportions, honest materials, flow, unity, a sense of timeless rightness - all essential to a good garden.  But you also need a beating heart to lift it into meaning and beauty.  That heart is the taste, or personality,  of the maker, or of the owner. If their intention keeps hitting you in the face, something might be wrong, as in the gardens where a new artwork faces you at every turn.  If, on the other hand, the whole thing is rather dull, you need a heart.

Time softens and confuses. The designer disappears. The heart then belongs to the garden not the chooser behind it.  The garden acquires an air of inevitability - that insouciant air that can look like the hand of beautiful nature.

Outlying parts of Hartland Abbey.  That red, a natural heart,  a stroke of taste.

It becomes hard to see how such a garden could be different; time sanctifies and everything seems as though its always been there.  When that happens straight away, you know you've got it right.

And so art and nature cohere and seem to change places, like Dylan's words at the beginning of the song. A beautiful garden is suffused with its own rightness and unique inventiveness, almost seeming to transcend good taste, but actually quite unable to escape from it.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Stealing Generosity - Sugar Baby


Words and ideas are always being misused, borrowed or stolen.  Rather like the domestic chainsaw.  Sometimes the borrower might sharpen the blunted and tired set of toothed blades. As far as I'm concerned, that's competence almost on a par with a moon landing, or directing an opera.  The chainsaw is vastly improved; we have a new beginning, refreshment and restoration.

Dylan is notorious for messing about with other people's stuff and the album "Love and Theft" puts the matter in a nutshell, he steals what he loves, he loves what he steals.  He picks pockets for tropes.  Then he lines them up with rhymes and music.  Adds feeling.  There it is, a song like Sugar Baby.  Only just hanging together, but full of mystery and a magnetism that comes from being a bit peculiar.

The song contains it's own trenchant and unexpectedly complimentary comment on the practice of bootlegging. There it is, the linking of theft and generosity.  Later we wander towards judgement day, via the dreadful behaviour of women.  The protagonist is evidently flawed so you don't have to believe everything he says, just take on board the sound of sympathy amongst the thefts. 

A clematis, possibly Belle of Woking

When you visit the domestic gardens that are so kindly flung open for the British gardening public, you're allowed to fish round for ideas; it's almost expected - the relationship between imitiation and flattery is completely understood.  On the whole the owner would be complimented if you said you were going to rush home and copy a bit of planting or a design feature.  They know it will look a little different in your garden, they're thrilled to have impressed favourably and the whole interchange will be one of communication and enthusiasm.

Just a common elder in bloom

I have had two weekends of open gardens, one in London, Tewkesbury Lodge, where I offered a little assistance.  The second around Canterbury, eighteen gardens, of which we, as visitors, managed about half, being late and pressed for time.  My photographs are mainly from the London set.  You would think there was no one there, that's just because I've been very clever, wanting to show you the gardens, and I've darted about, snapping things between and after people.  In fact turn-out was in the hundreds over the two days.

Blue Baptisia australis, with common moon daisies and gladiolus byzantinus

It's a very visible republic; the gardening one.  We're not mysterious to each other, we all know roughly what we love, and where the serious challenges lie.  People are modest about their own achievements.  Garden-owners let you in, laying themselves on the line; it's not really done to crash round hastily, without speaking.  If you speak, it's both best, and usually very easy, to find something pleasant to say.  There's plant-buying, chatting, and cake-eating and tea-drinking to be done.  Garden-owners are pleased, visitors are pleased, money is made for charity.  I'd love to see it in other countries too.

Of course some visitors barely garden at all in their own homes.  But those are particularly good value, lacking strong pre-conceptions and delighted to find plants they have never met before, open-minded and exploratory.  I was glad to meet some who were clear that their visit was a chance simply to enjoy being in gardens, at leisure outside. Chickens and vegetables add to the gaiety.

Grouped smaller backyard gardens are often interestingly ordinary, there's a gentleness about the whole experience that you don't get in the larger gardens which are often open more frequently and verge on the professional.  Here we have some rather good bits of relatively comfortable human nature; the plan to have a lovely day, cooperative effort, accommodation, welcome, industrious preparation, sharing.  Some people are imperfect, with complacency and sneering and so on, but we're not interested in those.

Carefully managed nettles and an original way with trellis

An upholstered and inviting front garden.  The layered tree is cornus macrophyllus.

A borrowed tree, a spot to sit

Now, there's a darker side to visiting gardens, and I don't plan to hide from it.  It's beautifully expressed by elizabethm in her blog .  She visits Beth Chattos's garden and emerges somehow deflated, depressed and made anxious by the beauty and excellence of what she sees.  It seems to diminish her own efforts and she  finds it hard to recover her confidence and equilibrium despite having loved what she has seen.  How rare to find someone with the honesty to explore this feeling - suddenly it seems that failure in our own eyes is a real possibility, in every part of life, even in  those things that seemed like reliable, soft solaces.  Our hobby turns out to be the Olympics after all, and we're neither ready, nor capable.  Those things we believed in, and prided ourselves on, how paltry they can seem.

Now I'm not putting up with this.  Of course the feeling is truly felt and truly expressed.  And some people are amazingly, unerringly talented.  And they're not all as well-known as Beth Chatto.  But we have to love what seems good, without letting it hurt us.  Find an idea you can thieve, adopt it, love it!  Perfectly natural, it's what history and culture are all about.  In the process the idea will gently transform into something of your own - it can do nothing else, for nothing stays the same out of its original setting.  And there is nothing new under the sun, and only ten stories.  Gardens are no different.  Despite the rage for novelty, change is torpid and styles are limited. 

An unusual front garden, , a winding path parallel to the house

So I've cast that problem aside, absolved Dylan, and diminished all artistic endeavour.  Just trying to spin it around and come out with the cheerful sharing and enthusiasm of a local garden opening.

I will say however, that sometimes I look at a garden I've made and am saddened at how poor it is, how far from what I'd hoped.  Harsh, true and difficult though that is.   No photographs.  It's awful to find oneself so personally inadequate, especially under the conditions of freedom, and even when it's only about gardens.  That's when finding a little something you're not crazy about in another person's garden, and preferably lowering your voice when you comment on it, can also be a way of stealing a little generosity.

Here's another rather small and bitter point.  You know those gardens that a person might have slaved over?  Visitors arrive and say enthusiastically "It's got such great potential".  They congratulate themselves on their own percipience!  They've understood nothing!  Down the road with them and their brainlessness.

  Abundance and width, straight lines, but informality.

So let us turn back to the song, which, to my mind, absorbs some harsh and difficult self-knowledge, but with wisdom and honesty.   Listen and be comforted.  The imperfections of a life lived are examined and accepted.

The bit about Aunt Sally seems to be the only "joke".  She's not really his aunt, she comes from Huckleberry Finn, where she offers an unwelcome refuge from uncertainty, disorder and freedom.   But who or what is Sugar Baby?  She could be the cost to him of settling down with the comfortable Aunt - that is, she could represent safety and comfort, the denial of risk, artistic freedom and change.  That's a denial, or a loss, that most of us fear and mourn with age, though we may never even have have properly tasted any of it.

The accusation of brainlessness seems cruel, but he might be talking to the brainless bit of himself.  There's plenty of brainlessness around;  hang on  to your brain and keep going.

The faceless Sugar Baby recedes and returns - there's something there but how could it be one thing?  He's moving through a life and a mind in the song, telling of what he's learnt.  Some things, and some people, must be let go, but love's not an evil thing - that's the least and the most you can say, and he sings it with real sweetness.  I would say another - gardening's not an evil thing either.

There's an occasional sound in this song, a soft sound in his voice - it's like a real reaching out.  You hear it on "now" at the end of the choruses.   I have a sense of all of us struggling along together, the sun blazing in our eyes, making mistakes, getting things wrong.  Cast off what's no good to you, lift your eyes up and beyond, see what matters.  A reasonable suggestion, even if I can neither seek my maker, nor do I expect to hear Gabriel's horn.

Keeping on going, as the song so strongly suggests we must, can be encouraged in the gardening world by the sharing and thieving of ideas.  That's how fashions get about, that's how stimulation spreads.  It helps you bring an analytical eye to what you see, helps you learn, helps you delight in the work of others.  Stealing and giving, all at once.

Here's an extraordinarily narrow border, about 18 inches deep, backed by a lowish wall.  This garden, in Kent, had many of these straight, plant-bordered walls and fences lining linked, squarish open areas around a farmhouse, set against meadows and fields, themselves hedged and fenced.  Only ordinary garden plants but they looked like elaborated hedgerows and created their own particular rhythm, breaking all the rules of depth in borders.  The enclosures were the garden.  A different idea, undertaken because the gardener found them easy to care for.  I liked it.  But it needs work. You can't easily see how narrow the borders are in these photos, so you'll have to be generous and take my word for it.

I don't know if I'll steal this idea yet, something similar has been rumbling away, to do with enhancing and developing hedgerows. But it was a sort of crystallisation, a kick along the road.

As you visit, speak only the truth.  But let your eyes and your heart hunt out what is interesting and what you can admire - even love. Evidence of thought and effort, and the staying of sterility and destructiveness - we can't do without those, they're the pre-requisites of a garden.   Even so, you might end up with nothing more than potential to praise - at that point, I flatter myself that I would engage my brain, and hold my tongue.  When I'm truly enamoured, I steal.  Thank you.